They didn't realize they'd ended up in enemy territory.
When a pair of Milwaukee Police detectives stopped a couple of suspicious-looking men at the corner of South 1st Street and National Avenue early on the morning of Jan. 14, 1945, they had no idea they were about to catch a couple of Nazi paratroopers out on the town and very far from home.
The Germans, 23-year-old Willi Lepil and 19-year-old Carl Zoeller, had escaped from Camp Mitchell, a prisoner of war camp that had recently opened on the grounds of General Mitchell Airfield. The camp was one of 36 in Wisconsin and would come to house more than 3,000 enemy soldiers. Lepil and Zoeller had seen extensive combat action before they were captured by the Americans near Rome in August 1944. Months of being in custody had taken their toll on the men and, after just two days at Camp Mitchell (the men labored in a battery assembly plant that had been constructed on the grounds), they decided to take their chances on Milwaukee’s streets. They had, after all, heard that Milwaukee had a very large German population.
Despite the barbed wire fence that surrounded the camp – and the 250 GIs who guarded it – the pair escaped without much trouble, sneaking from barrack building to barrack building in the wee hours of the morning before scaling the fence. As free men, they enjoyed a few beers and took in a polka show before being stopped by police. Both men were dressed in inside-out jackets – worn so to conceal the “PW” stitched onto the back of the army-issued clothing. It didn’t take long for the cops to realize that the men were escapees from the newly opened prison camp. Lepil told his story to the police in heavily accented English, explaining that the camp and the work had depressed him. “I figured it would be much nicer on the outside than on the inside,” he said.
Pointing out the irony of the Germans escaping into the city’s Polish neighborhood, one of the detectives told the men they were lucky to have been found by police before the locals learned their identity. “Looks like we were in enemy territory without realizing it,” Lepil said. Zoeller agreed and expressed thanks to the police for their kind treatment before they were turned back over to the army. He also made the rather dubious claim that the German Gestapo would have been just as kind to an escaped American soldier in Germany. The men remained at the camp until it began to be phased out after the German surrender. It was closed for good in April 1946.